Friday, December 27, 2002

The imprint from the book I finished yesterday:

I grabbed Henrietta Buckmaster's Deep River off a shelf in the Main Library in as random a manner as possible. I walked through the stacks, stuck my arm up, and pulled down the first book my fingertips dragged across. I do this a lot. Usually I end up reading a page or two of whatever book it is that I picked, then return it to the stacks w/out ever finishing it. This one, though, I checked out and carried around in my car for six months, reading it over lunch every day.

As is obvious from the imprint, Buckmaster published her book during WWII. It was pretty popular when it first arrived at IU--it circulated in Oct. 1945, twice in Dec. 1945, again in Dec. 1946, and then again in Oct. 1947. A faculty member checked it out then, and returned it on Sept. 11 of some unknown year. It had to be 1952 or earlier, though, because it circulated again Jul. 1953. It went out to faculty again, and was returned Feb. 1958. And there it sat, never to circulate again until I pulled it off the shelf.

And this is what I don't understand--how could such a book sit there, unnoticed for 40-something years? I don't understand exactly how Deep River didn't make it into the canon of American literature. Who has even heard of Henrietta Buckmaster? I never had. If you *have* heard of her, it's probably because of her biography of Harriet Tubman, or her book Let My People Go, about the Underground Railroad. It isn't because of Deep River, and that's a damn shame.

It took me awhile to really get into the book, Buckmaster is of the school of writing that believes in capturing actual language w/her writing, and it can be rough going, trying to stumble through her attempts at recording Georgia "mountain" speech. Actually, her entire writing style is different than anything I've read before, so I couldn't just drift off and let my eyes do the reading, I had to keep paying attention with my mind, too. I wasn't sure it was going to be worth the effort, but it was.

A basic summary: it's an abolitionist's novel, written almost a century after Harriet Beecher Stowe published Uncle Tom's Cabin. The book is divided into the two parts, the first focusing on Savanna, the daughter of a plantation owner who marries an abolition-minded mountain man; and the second focusing on her husband, Simon, who leaves the mountains to study law so he can destroy the institution of slavery. The book is set right before the outbreak of the War Between the States. Simon and Savanna have recently married, and between them, they need to decide where their loyalties fall: to each other, to their families, to their neighbors, to the State of Georgia, and/or to the Union.

It is indeed a novel, even though it follows the lives of real people and events as well as any history book, and I think Buckmaster's particular talent shows in her ability to make it feel like a 19th. rather than 20th c. novel. It's obviously of this century, she couldn't write about the events the way she did if she was writing while they were current, but she manages to completely capture the turmoil and political terror of the times. It's too bad it couldn't have been written a hundred years earlier, I think it would have made a better abolitionist argument than Uncle Tom's Cabin.

I didn't even notice this was a "war book" until C. pointed it out the imprint a few days ago. One of my goals in the next few days is to see if I can find some book reviews from when Deep River first came out. Was it controversial? I don't know anything about Buckmaster--I deliberately didn't look her up after I started reading the book, because I wanted to judge it for myself, not let someone else tell me how to think. I have since discovered that she received an Ohioana fiction award and a Guggenheim Fellowship for it, but what did everyone else think? Because if this would have been an abolitionist novel in 1845, it was very plainly a Civil Rights novel in 1945. The threads of Enlightenment philosophy that run through the book are astounding, and although its couched in terms of the Civil War, the declarative statement is really: we are failures as humans as long as we continue to let oppression exist unopposed. It's a book intended to grab white people by the front of their shirts and make them see what they've been doing without thinking all their lives. It's an argument for the abolition of oppression not just of black men, but of women--all women--as well.

What impresses me most, I guess, is that the book was published at all. I understand why it was wartime book, it was unapologetically pro-Union and pro-North, but I'm guessing that the publication censors must have just skimmed the text before saying, "Yeah, pro-U.S., good." They must have missed the whole bit about that guy Marx, who had some good things to say about workers and how they should see the benefit of their labors and how the poor white men of the South would do good to take Marx's lessons to heart and think about what a revolution would get them. I can't imagine the U.S. government at any time taking kindly to teaching black men about Marx, and all I can guess is that they had no idea what the real intention of the book was--to call for a rising up in Buckmaster's own day and age. I also can't believe they missed the obvious oratory on breaking the law--we're morally and ethically obligated to go against the law of the United States if that law violates a larger law (which in this case, was styled as both Biblical law and a more Enlightenment-informed Natural Law).

I don't know, it's a very complex book. A lot of the abolitionist arguments made at the outset are made in relation to the lives of poor white trash: how plantation owners, through their use of slave labor, are manipulating the economic structure of the South to their favor at the expense of the poor Georgia crackers. A lot of the rallying cries in the first half of the book involve getting the poor white dirt farmer to recognize how slavery is ruining his life. Then half way through the book, the argument starts to change to one intent on humanizing black slaves. Simon the lawyer moves away from fighting against slavery to better the lives of his white constituents toward fighting it because he believes in the humanity of slaves and their right to live a safe and dignified and prosperous life.

There's a courtroom scene in the second half of the book, where Simon has to defend not only a slave who has been falsely accused of raping a white woman (who happens to be poor white trash), but also defend an abolitionist who passed Bible scriptures encouraging freedom to the same slave. It's not as accessible as what Harper Lee provides in To Kill A Mockingbird, but it's such a good part of the book. Simon finds he can defend the slave, Harry, more easily than the abolitionist, because the slave is property, and property is money, and no court will take away a plantation owner's property without evidence. So Simon is faced w/a dilemma--he can save Harry by arguing that he is valuable property, an argument he hates, but will spare the Harry's life. Or, he can argue for Harry's intrinsic value as a human being, and sentence him to death. Either way, he finds he has to deal with the institution of "sacred white womanhood," what he can and cannot say about a (white) woman, and more importantly, what he can and cannot say about a *poor* white woman.

As it turns out, he can't adequately defend the abolitionist, because he's of no value to anyone financially, no one cares about him except that he stop trying to steal slaves away.

What makes me angry in the end is I had to read a lot of stupid stuff in high school...oh...Faulkner springs to mind....Hemingway...writers that say *nothing* to me, and here is this great book rotting away on the library shelves. It's a fantastic look back at the all the chaos before the Civil War, but it's also an excellent distillation of this moment before the Civil Rights movement explodes in the United States. I really don't think I'm giving Buckmaster too much credit by saying she was encouraging a Civil Rights rebellion, I think she knew exactly what kind of statement she was making, and it's too bad it was ignored, forgotten and abandoned. Maybe it would have been too challenging for me in high school, but then again, maybe I wouldn't have hated 10th grade English so much if I would have gotten to read something outside the canon of the Great White Male Against the World.

10:54 PM

Feeling good about yourself? Go shopping for new clothes, and that will put an end to it.

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